Soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will be charged this week in relation to the death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist severely beaten while in British military custody.
Around six soldiers from the QLR - the regiment at the centre of the row over hoax pictures published in the Daily Mirror - face charges in relation to incidents in Iraq. Senior military officials said Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, will confirm "within days" the first criminal prosecutions against British soldiers since the war began.
The charges relate to two cases, one of which is the death of Mr Mousa, 28, revealed by this newspaper in January. Mr Hoon hinted at imminent action in the Commons last week. "Two cases have reached an advanced stage, with decisions on prosecutions pending," he said.
Although the nature of the second case is unknown, at least one soldier is likely to be be charged with manslaughter in connection with Mr Mousa. The severity of the charge, and the potential sentence on conviction, mean the case is expected to be heard in a civilian criminal court rather than at a court martial.
News of the criminal prosecution is a setback for the QLR. Colonel David Black, a former commanding officer, expressed "quiet satisfaction" on Friday after the Mirror accepted the photos it published of alleged prisoner abuse were fakes, and the editor, Piers Morgan, was sacked. The newspaper, which apologised for its error yesterday, announced that it would be donating the money it had made from selling the faked pictures, estimated at £100,000, to charity.
The US authorities, struggling with their own abuse scandal after photos were released showing military police mistreating Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad, are seeking to focus attention on the savage retaliation it produced - the videotaped beheading of Nick Berg, 26, a contractor.
President George Bush said in his weekly radio address yesterday that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a wanted al-Qa'ida activist, was responsible and must be hunted down.
But opinion in Iraq has been inflamed by the stream of revelations about torture in Abu Ghraib, despite an official ban on "stress techniques" and a growing number of soldiers being sent for courts martial. The latest was Corporal Charles Graner, seen in many of the photographs. The US military authorities are considering action against other soldiers, including at least three women, one of whom is Pte Lynndie England, the subject of several of the most notorious pictures.
Pressure on British forces in Iraq, meanwhile, will increase as details of the Mousa case are aired. In a previously confidential report released last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross detailed his "ill-treatment" at the hands of QLR soldiers.
In all there have been 33 allegations of death, injury or ill-treatment against British troops in Iraq. The Royal Military Police have dismissed 15, but six are proceeding. The MoD said yesterday that four soldiers had been arrested in connection with one of the alleged abuses in Iraq, but all were later released.
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